How to win the "best schools" race - don't play the game!

A week ago my knowledge of the education system of Finland was, to be honest,  almost non-existent.   I knew that they were consistently ranked number one of all “Western” countries in PISA testing but had no idea how they did it.  Then, last weekend, I attended a keynote address by Professor Teemu Leinonen, Professor of New Media Design and Learning at the Media Lab of Aalto University in Helsinki.   Teemu informed the audience that Finland is the source country of Nokia, of Linux, and perhaps even more importantly, the mobile app “Angry Birds”.  Almost as an aside he mentioned that Finland does not have any formal educational testing until the final year of schooling.

My ears picked up – no formal testing?

Professor Leinonen indicated that there was evaluation – but this was left to the teachers for the purpose of assisting their teaching,  not for any evaluation or ranking of students or teachers or schools.  So here is a country with essentially no formal testing until the final year of schooling that is consistently outperforming every country in the Western world that is test driven.  This flies counter to one of the major pillars of conservative school reformists and system administrators in other parts of the world.   It should be said that educators such as Alfie Kohn have been lamenting the revered status of test scores for many years now – but sometimes it seems he is an almost lone voice against  a massed choir of test advocates.  Some further investigation was called for.

As it happened American  broadcaster and blogger David Sirota recently interviewed Harvard Professor Dr. Tony Wagner on his radio program – which, thanks to the wonders of the internet, is accessible to anyone in the world.  Wagner is the  the author of a book with the unwieldy title of “The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills our Children Need” .  He is also the narrator of the recently produced documentary “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the world’s most surprising school system”.  In the interview Wagner confirms Leinonen’s comments and makes some further observations:

  • There is no “high stakes” testing in schools in Finland.
  • Teachers must have a Masters degree.
  • Teaching is highly esteemed – only 10% of initial applicants make it through to teach in a classroom.
  • Teachers work collaboratively  - Wagner states that “...isolation is the enemy of innovation and improvement.”
  • The curriculum is designed to promote thinking – not memorisation.
  • The performance difference between the top and bottom schools in Finland is only 4%.


Much of the interview is spent addressing (and effectively debunking) the usual claims of “you can’t compare us to Finland...”


It is dangerous to make interpretations based on another’s observations – but, whilst acknowledging this,  there seem to be a number of implications for other education systems in the Finnish experience.     Obviously, large credit for the success of the Finish education system must go to the selection, preparation and performance of the teachers – and the collaboration embedded in their system. 


However, the absence of formal testing must be considered as a factor in their success.  Not only would this approach “free up” time for genuine teaching, but it would also remove the mindset of scores and test performance as indicators of student learning.  Mastery of concepts when performing authentic tasks in meaningful contexts would become the basis for student development.  We know that summative testing does not lead to sustained improvement in student performance – rather than cite Alfie Kohn yet again I will cite Dr. Dylan William of the University of London who claims that 4000 studies have confirmed that informative feedback consistently produces better student learning than  summative assessment – 4000 studies.  (To investigate this further click here to access the  Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Today background document.   This should be compulsory reading for anyone involved in education.  The figure used here can be found on page 25.) 


As has been said, rather colourfully, by others, “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.”  It would appear that, on the basis of Williams’s research and the Finnish experience,  if we want to improve our schools ... we need to concentrate on teaching well rather than to the test.



Sirota’s blog provides a summary of the interview here   and also link to the relevant audio archive.     (The interview is towards the end of the show – I recommend downloading the mp3 file rather than listening online, then use the slider to fast forward to the 24:03 mark and listen from there.  Don’t be put off by a section in the middle where Sirota advertises the next guest – he does return to the Wagner interview.)

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Tags: Education, Finland, achievement, curriculum, education, reform, schoo, student, system, teaching, More…testing


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